ORSON SCOTT CARDS INTERGALACTIC MEDICINE SHOW (In the Eyes of the Empress's Cat)
BY BRADLEY P. BEAULIEU
Al-Ashmar sat cross-legged in the tent of Gadn ak Hulavar and placed his patient, a spotted cat, onto a velvet pillow. Gadn lounged on the far side of the spacious tent, puffing on his hookah and waiting for the diagnosis of his grossly thin cat.
Al-Ashmar held his fingers near the cat's nose. She sniffed his hand and raked her whiskers over his knuckles. When the cat raised her head and stared into his eyes, Al-Ashmar found a brown, triangle-shaped splotch in the right eye, along the left side of the green-and-gold iris. The location of the mark indicated the cat's liver, but in this case it was the strong color that was most disturbing.
"What have you been feeding her?" Al-Ashmar asked as he stroked the cat, noting its muscle tone.
Gadn shrugged his massive shoulders. "Nothing. Cats find food."
Al-Ashmar smiled, if only to hide his annoyance. The wealthy always wanted cats of status, but when it came time to care for them, they hadn't an idea worth its weight in sand.
"Not this one," Al-Ashmar said as he picked up the cat and stood, absently continuing to stroke its ears. "Please, go to the bazaar; buy a large cage and some swallows. Once a day, put her in the cage with one bird. The activity should interest her enough to induce appetite. Do this for a week and her normal eating pattern should return. If it doesn't, send me word."
A bald servant boy rushed into the room and bowed deeply. "Master, if you please, there is a messenger."
"We are done?" Gadn asked Al-Ashmar.
"Then bring the messenger here, Mousaf." Gadn handed Al-Ashmar three coins and then embraced him, kissing one cheek, then the other.
But the servant boy remained. "Begging your mercy, master, but they are asking for Al-Ashmar ak Kulhadn."
Al-Ashmar frowned. "Who is, boy?"
"A man, from the palace."
Gadn shoved the boy aside and rushed from the tent. "Why didn't you say so?"
Al-Ashmar was right behind him. Moments later, they reached the edge of the caravan grounds, near the pens holding dozens of Gadn's camels and donkeys and goats. A balding man with a reed-thin beard--the current rage in the Empress's courts--and wearing blue silk finery stood just outside the caravan grounds, on the sandy road leading back toward the city proper. Behind him stood four palace guards.
The first thought through Al-Ashmar's mind was the sort of beating Gadn's servant would get for referring to Djazir ak Benkada as a "messenger."
The second was what sort of emergency would require the Empress's own spiritual guide and physician to personally come asking for him, a simple physic. At the least it would be to attend to a courtier's cat--after all, he'd been to the palace a handful of times for just such a purpose--but since Djazir had come personally, he could only assume it was for Bela, the Empress's cat.
Gadn ak Hulavar, as the caravan's master, stepped forward to meet Djazir. "Please, Eminence, would you care to join us? A smoke, perhaps?"
But Gadn stopped when Djazir held up an open palm and stared at Al-Ashmar.
"You will accompany me," Djazir said.
"Of course, Eminence," Al-Ashmar replied.
He left the confused and slightly hurt Gadn and followed the royal guards and physician toward the palace. The climb through the city streets was not long, but neither was it easy. Al-Ashmar didn't consider himself old, but he didn't have sharp climbs like this in him anymore--not without becoming winded, in any case. Djazir, on the other hand, a good fifteen years older than Al-Ashmar, seemed hardly winded at all.
They walked through the Grand Hallway with its long pool of water and lily pads, up four sets of stairs to reach the Empress's personal wing, through a small garden of palm trees and beds of sand sculptures, and finally reached the waiting chamber of the Empress herself.
Even though it had been nearly ten years since he'd had the honor of visiting the Empress's wing, Al-Ashmar was surprised to find so many memories in conflict with reality. The room was as opulent as he remembered, but almost completely stripped of furniture--the only furnishings were the throne itself and a marble table crouched next to it, the only entertainment the three books stacked on top of the table.
Djazir turned to Al-Ashmar and spoke softly. "Understand, ak Kulhadn, you are here to examine the Empress's cat, that is all. You will do your business and you will leave. Is that understood?"
Al-Ashmar tipped his head low. "Of course, Eminence."
"If the Empress decides to speak to you, it will be through her handmaid. But it is taxing on her, and you will formulate brief answers, answers that will not invite further comment."
Djazir studied Al-Ashmar's eyes and finally, apparently satisfied, turned to the guard nearest the rear door of the room and nodded. The guard rang a small brass cymbal. Minutes passed, and Al-Ashmar began to wonder if the cymbal had been heard, but then the door opened, and two huge eunuchs walked in carrying a palanquin between them. The Empress sat inside the covered palanquin, but her form was obscured by the green veils hanging down from the palanquin's roof. The only thing Al-Ashmar could discern was the golden headdress resting over her brown hair.
They set the palanquin down near the padded throne and, after pulling the fabric away on the far side, cradled the Empress from inside and set her gently on the throne. The pair of eunuchs--for only eunuch guards were allowed this close to the Empress--then moved to stand behind her, one on each side.
The Empress's eyes drooped, the left lower than the right; she sat tilted to one side, her head arching back the other way; her thin arms rested ineffectually in her lap. She had a face Al-Ashmar barely recognized--another memory that appeared to have faded to the point of uselessness. Then again, the last time he'd seen her had been years before the malady that had left her in such a state.
Al-Ashmar suddenly realized that someone else had entered the room. A woman--young, but no child, she. She moved with a subtle grace, hips swaying as she did so, but she stared at no one until she reached the Empress's side. Thus positioned, she turned and regarded Al-Ashmar with impassive, kohl-rimmed eyes. How stunning those green eyes were. How beautiful.
Much of Al-Ashmar's mind wanted to compare her to another beauty in his life--dear Nara, his wife who'd passed years ago--but those memories were still tender, and so he left the comparisons where they lay. Buried.
With no one performing introductions, Al-Ashmar took one knee to the Empress and woman both. "I am Al-Ashmar ak Kulhadn, humble physic."
"The Empress knows who you are," the woman said.
Movement pulled Al-Ashmar's attention away from the Empress. From inside the safety of the palanquin leapt a cat, Bela, the bright one, ninth and final companion to the Empress Waharra before she alights for the heavens. Like the cat Al-Ashmar had just treated, Bela was long and lean, but she had the muscle tone of a cat treated well. Her smooth coat was ivory with onyx spots coating her sides and back. Stripes slid down her face, giving her an innocent but regal look. She roamed the room and croaked out a meow as if she had just woken from a long nap. She seemed wary of Al-Ashmar and Djazir, but then she slunk to the foot of the throne, curled up in a ball, and began licking one outstretched leg.
Djazir moved to the palanquin and retrieved a crimson pillow dusted with short white hair. He set the pillow down several paces away from the throne and then set Bela upon it.
"Please," Djazir said to Al-Ashmar, motioning to Bela, "tell us what you can."
Al-Ashmar hesitated--how rude not to introduce him to the woman!--but there was nothing for it. He couldn't afford to insult Djazir.
As Al-Ashmar stepped forward and knelt before the cat, he felt the Empress's eyes watching his every move. Her body might have failed her, but her mind, he was sure, was as sharp as ever. Al-Ashmar stroked Bela's side and stomach. Bela stretched and purred.
"Her symptoms?" he asked.
He expected Djazir to answer, but it was the woman who spoke. "Her feces are loose and runny. She eats less, though she still eats. She's listless much of the day."
Bela's purr intensified, a rasping sound everyone in the room could hear.
"Anything else? Anything you noticed days ago, even weeks?"
"Her eyes started watering and crusting eight or nine days ago. But that stopped a few days back."
"Has her diet changed?"
"She began eating less, but Djazir administered cream from the Empress's reserve herd, laced with fennel."
"She's kept her appetite since?"
"Somewhat, but she still seems to eat too little."
Al-Ashmar scratched Bela under the chin. Bela stretched her neck and squinted, but when she opened her eyes wide again, Al-Ashmar started. He leaned closer while continuing to scratch, tilting Bela's head from side to side while doing so. Bela seemed amused, but on the inside of her iris was a raised, curling mark. It retained the golden color of the iris, but something was obviously there, just beneath the surface.
Al-Ashmar sat upright, confused.
But the woman...She held an expression that said she'd rather this sullied business be over and done with.
"Do you have a name," Al-Ashmar asked, "or shall I continue to treat you like a talking palm?"
Was there a hint of a smile from the Empress?
"You may call me Rabiah," the woman said crisply.
The height of rudeness! What civilized person withholds her mother's name?
"Where has this cat been, Rabiah?" Al-Ashmar asked.
Her eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"
"I asked where the Empress's cat has been, in the last month."
"In the palace only. She has never left."
"Of course not."
"Enough, ak Kulhadn," Djazir said. "What is it you see?"
"Forgive me. I ask these questions because Bela--long may the sun shine on her life--has snakeworm."
"What?" Djazir asked. He kneeled beside Al-Ashmar and stared into Bela's eyes.
"Look for the raised area. There."
While Djazir inspected her eyes, Al-Ashmar couldn't help but wonder how this could have happened. Snakeworm was common in his homeland, but that was far to the south, and the worm came from goats. There were caravans, of course, like Gadn's, that brought livestock northward. It was conceivable that a cat could get it from a transplanted goat, but the worm seemed to have trouble thriving in the north. In nearly twenty years in the capital, he'd seen only three cases, and all of them had been near the caravan landings or the bazaar. How could Bela, a cat that would never be allowed away from the palace grounds, have contracted the worm?
Al-Ashmar stood. "I can make a tonic and return tomorrow."
"No," Djazir said, standing as well. "You will tell me how to make it."
Al-Ashmar dipped his head until he could no longer make eye contact with Djazir. "With due respect, it cannot be taught in so short a time. The balance is tricky, and I wouldn't wish to jeopardize Bela's life over a formula crudely made."
Djazir bristled. "Then you will do it immediately and return here when it's done."
"Of course, but it will take nearly a day. The ingredients are rare, and it will take me time to find those of proper quality. And then I must boil--"
Al-Ashmar stopped at a disturbing noise coming from the Empress. The sounds from her throat could hardly be construed as words, and yet Rabiah leaned over and listened attentively as if she were speaking.
Rabiah stood. "Her Highness, Waharra sut Shahmat, wishes for Al-Ashmar to make the tonic. Alone. He will return tomorrow when it is ready, and every day after until Bela's recovery is judged complete."
Djazir bowed to the Empress, as did Al-Ashmar. Again, he saw a quirky smile from her lips and wondered if it could be such a thing. She had enough control still to speak to Rabiah. Could she not show amusement if she so chose?
He supposed she could. But the real question was: Why? Why him? And why amusement?
Al-Ashmar rose to his feet and turned to Djazir. "Anyone in close contact with Bela may have contracted the worm, so it would be wise to examine everyone, even wiser for everyone to take the same tonic as Bela will receive."
After Djazir nodded his assent, Al-Ashmar inspected the hulking guards, then Djazir. As he held Rabiah's head and gazed into her irises, more than anything else he sensed the scent of jasmine and the warmth of her face through his fingertips. He had to force himself to examine her complex green eyes closely to make sure there were no signs of infection.
Al-Ashmar knelt before the Empress next. It took him a moment, for the two guards were watching him as the cobra spies the mongoose. The Empress's eyes were free of the worm, but she kept glancing toward the stack of books on the nearby marble table.
When Al-Ashmar stepped away, he noticed the binding of the top book; it was inlaid with a cursive pattern--a pattern often used in the south, Al-Ashmar's home. In the center of the leather cover rested a tiger-eye stone with a silver, diamond-shaped setting.
Bela, sitting beneath the table, watched him closely. It was strange how utterly human Bela looked for that brief instant.
Al-Ashmar nodded to the Empress. "Our Exalted has fine taste in books."
She spoke to Rabiah. Rabiah said not a word, but it was a long time before she moved to the stack of books and retrieved the top one. She held it out to Al-Ashmar.
"My lady?" Al-Ashmar said.
"The Blessed One wishes to gift you."
Al-Ashmar nearly raised his hands to refuse, but how grave an insult to reject such an offer. "The Empress is too kind," he said at last.
Rabiah shoved it into his chest, forcing him to take it.
And now there could be no doubt.
The Empress was smiling.
Late that night, within his workroom, Al-Ashmar poured three heaping spoonfuls of ground black walnut husk into the boiling pot before him. The sounds of the evening meal being cleared by the children came from behind. Mia, his second youngest, sat on a stool, watching, as she so often did. She picked up the glass phial of clove juice and removed the stopper, but immediately after recoiled from the sharp smell and wrinkled her nose.
Al-Ashmar laughed. "Then stop smelling it."
"It smells so weird."
"Well, weird or not, it's the Empress's, so leave it alone." Al-Ashmar added the minced wormwood root and mixed it thoroughly with the ground husks. That done, he flipped his hourglass over, and the sand began spilling into the empty chamber.
Mia leaned over the table and retrieved a thin piece of coal and the papyrus scrap she'd been writing on. "How long after the bark?"
"Four hours, covered. It will boil down, nearly to a paste."
She wrote chicken prints on the scroll. Al-Ashmar tried to hide his smile, for if she caught him, she always got upset. She didn't know how to write more than a few letters, but still she created her own recipes as Al-Ashmar made things she hadn't learned about yet.
"I told you, the clove juice, then the elixir, then they steep."
"Oh," she said while writing more, "I forgot." She sat up then and fixed him with a child's most-serious expression. "Doesn't she have people to heal cats in the palace?"
Al-Ashmar found himself hiding another smile. He often told his seven children about his day over their evening meal, but Mia was the one who listened most often. "She does, Mia, but they rarely see such things."
"From where you and Memma came from."
"Then how did it get here?"
Al-Ashmar shrugged. He still hadn't been able to piece together a plausible story. "I don't know."
"Tell me about the woman again. She sounded pretty."
"I told you, pet, she wasn't pretty. She was mean."
Mia shrugged and tugged the Empress's book closer. "She sounded pretty to me." She flipped through the pages, pretending to read each one. "What's this?"
"A gift, from the Empress," Al-Ashmar said.
"What does it teach?"
Al-Ashmar smiled. It was a retelling of several fables from his homeland--four of them, all simple tales of the spirits of the southern lands and how they helped or harmed wayward travelers.
"Nothing," he finally said. "Now off to bed."
Mia ignored him, as she often did on his first warning. "What's this?"
Al-Ashmar snatched the book away and stared at the scribbles Mia had been looking at. He hadn't noticed it earlier. He'd had too much to do, and since it had seemed so innocuous, he'd left it until he had more time to sift through its pages. On the last page were the words save her written in an appalling, jittery hand. The letters were oversized as well, as if writing any smaller either was impossible or would have rendered the final text unreadable.
The Empress, surely. But why? Save who?
And from what?
Mia dropped from her stool and fought next to him for a view. "Enough, Mia. To bed."
After tucking the children in for the night, Al-Ashmar stayed up, nursing the tonic and thinking. Save her. Save Bela? But that made no sense. He had already been summoned, had already been directed to heal the Empress's cat. Why write a note for that?
Then again, there was no logical reason that the cat would have the worm. Coincidence was too unlikely. So it had to have been intentional. But who would dare infect the Empress's cat? Did the Empress fear that the next attempt would be bolder? Was something afoot even now?
Bela, after all, was the Empress's ninth cat--her last--and when she died, so would the Empress, and her closest servants with her. That might explain Djazir's tense mood, might even explain Rabiah's sullenness. But it wouldn't explain the smile on the Empress's lips. For whatever reason, it seemed most logical that the Empress had arranged this.
Al-Ashmar paged through the tale in which the jagged words had been written. It was a tale of a child that had wandered too far and was destined to die alone in the mountains. But then a legendary shepherd found her and brought her to live with him--him and his eighty-nine children, others who'd been found wandering in the same manner.
Hours later, Al-Ashmar added the clove juice and a honey-ginger elixir to the tonic and left it to steep. After his mind struggled through a thousand dead-end possibilities, Father Sleep finally found him.
The following day, Al-Ashmar was led to the Empress's garden. Strands of wispy clouds marked the blue sky as a pleasant breeze rattled the palm leaves. Bela sat at the foot of the Empress's throne, which had been moved from inside the cold and empty room. The cat lapped at the cream laced with the tonic.
Odd, Al-Ashmar thought. Cats usually detested the remedy no matter how carefully it was hidden. Al-Ashmar's other patients, however, were not so pliant. Nearby, Rabiah took a deep breath and downed the last of her phial. The eunuchs, thank goodness, had swallowed theirs at a word from Rabiah.
"Bela will need two more doses today," Al-Ashmar said, "and three more tomorrow."
Djazir stared at his half-empty phial, a look of complete disgust on his face.
"Please," Al-Ashmar said to Djazir, "I know it is distasteful, but you need to drink the entire phial."
"I will drink it, physic, but we will not subject the Empress to such a thing."
Al-Ashmar hid his eyes from Djazir. "Of course you know best, but if the Empress has the worm, the effects will only worsen."
The Empress spoke to Rabiah. Al-Ashmar, listening more closely than the day before, could still understand not a single word.
"Of course, Exalted," Rabiah said, and she retrieved the phial meant for the Empress.
Djazir gritted his jaw as Rabiah tilted the phial into the Empress's mouth. The Empress's eyes watered, and she coughed, causing some of it to spill onto Rabiah's hands.
"Be careful of her eyes," Al-Ashmar said, stepping forward. "The tonic will sting horribly for quite some time--"
But Rabiah waved him away. At least she took more care how she supported the Empress's head as she dispensed the liquid. The Empress's coughing slowed the process to a crawl, but eventually the ordeal was over.
Djazir took Al-Ashmar by the elbow, ready to lead him from the garden and out of the palace.
"I wonder if we might speak," Al-Ashmar said. "Alone, so as not to disturb the Empress."
Djazir seemed doubtful, but he released Al-Ashmar's elbow. "What about?"
"A few questions only, in order to narrow down the source of the worms. If we cannot find it, the infection may simply recur."
Djazir brought him up a set of stairs to a railed patio on the roof of the palace. Around them the entire city sprawled over the land for miles. The river glistened as it crawled like the snakeworm through the flesh of the city until reaching the glittering sea several miles away.
Al-Ashmar spoke, asking questions about Bela's activities, the Empress's, even Rabiah's, but this was all a ruse. He'd wanted to get Djazir to agree to questioning simply so he could ask the same of Rabiah. He had to get her alone, for only in her did he have a chance of unwrapping this riddle.
Djazir agreed to send Rabiah up to speak to him as well, and several minutes later, she came and stood a safe distance away from him, staring out over the city. It took him a moment, but Al-Ashmar realized that Rabiah was staring at the fourteen spires standing at attention along the shore. Thirteen Empresses lay buried beneath thirteen obelisks, and the fourteenth stood empty, waiting. Al-Ashmar thought at first she was simply ignoring him, but there was so much anxiety on her face as she stared at the obelisk.
"She won't die from the worm, my lady. We've caught it in time."
Rabiah turned to him and nodded, her face blank now. "I know, physic."
Then realization struck. Rabiah wasn't afraid because of the worm, never had been. She was afraid for something else, something much more serious. Like riddles within riddles, the answer to this one simple curiosity led to a host of answers he'd struggled with late into the night.
He hesitated to voice his thoughts--they were thoughts that could get one killed--but he had no true choice. He could no more bury this question than he could have denied any of his children a home when they'd needed it.
"How much longer?"
A muscle twitched along Rabiah's neck. She turned away from him and stared out over the sharp, rolling landscape. For a long, long time the only sound he heard was the call of a lone gull and the pounding of stone hammers in the distance.
"Months, perhaps," she said, "but I fear it will be less."
"You know what she's asking of me, don't you?"
"Yes, physic, but you will do nothing of the sort. I will die with her. I will help her on the other shore as I have helped her here."
This was ludicrous, Al-Ashmar thought. He jeopardized his entire family with this one conversation. He should leave. He should instruct Djazir in the creation of the tonic, heal Bela, and be done with this foul mess.
But as he stared at Rabiah, he realized how lost she was. She would die the day after the Empress did, would be buried in the Empress's tomb, which waited beneath the newest obelisk along the shores of the Dengkut.
The ways of the Empresses had always seemed strange when he'd been growing up in the southlands, and little had changed since coming to the capital to find his fortune. In fact, the opposite had happened. Each year found him more and more confused.
But that was him. His opinion mattered little. What mattered was why the Empress would go against tradition and ask him to save Rabiah from her fate.
The answer, Al-Ashmar realized, could be found by looking no further than his adopted children. Rabiah had cared for the Empress, most likely day and night, ever since her attacks had left her stricken. Rabiah would have become part daughter, part mother. And when the Empress died, Rabiah's bright young life would be forfeit. How could the Empress not try to protect her?
Al-Ashmar regarded Rabiah with new eyes. She had cared for the Empress in life, and she was willing to do so in death, no matter what it might mean for her personally.
"You are noble," Al-Ashmar said.
Rabiah turned to him, a confused look on her beautiful face. "You don't believe that."
Al-Ashmar smiled. "I may not understand much, Rabiah of No Mother, but I know devotion when I see it."
Rabiah stared, saying nothing, but her eyes softened ever so slowly.
"I will need to come for a week, to ensure Bela's restoration is complete. Perhaps we can come here and talk. Perhaps play a hand of river."
"I don't play games, physic."
"Then perhaps just the talk."
Rabiah held his gaze, and then nodded.
The next week passed by quickly. Al-Ashmar's oldest son, Fakhir, was forced to take the summonses Al-Ashmar would have normally taken himself; Tayyeb, his oldest girl, did what she could for those who brought their cats to his home; and though they hated it, it was up to Hilal and Yusuf to watch over the young ones, Shafiq and Badra and Mia.
The family conversed each night over dinner. Al-Ashmar helped them learn from things they did wrong, but in truth his pride swelled over their performances in tasks he had thought them incapable of only days ago.
Most of his time, however, was spent creating the tonic for Bela and the Empress, administering it, and teaching the technique to Djazir. Bela continued her uncanny acceptance of the tonic, as Djazir continued his complaints, but the cure progressed smoothly.
Rabiah held true to her word. She accompanied him to the roof, sometimes for nearly an hour, and spoke to him. She was reserved at first, unwilling to speak, and so it was often Al-Ashmar who told stories of the south, of his travels, of his early days in the capital. It was uncomfortable to speak of Nara, but to speak of his children, he had no choice but to speak of his wife.
"You loved her?" Rabiah asked one day.
"My wife? Of course."
"You couldn't have children of your own?"
Al-Ashmar smiled and jutted his chin toward the city. "She knew what it was like, out there. Why have our own when there are so many in need?"
Rabiah regarded him for a long time then, and finally said, "You wanted one of your own, didn't you?"
Al-Ashmar paused, embarrassed. "Am I so shallow?"
"No, but such a thing is hard to hide when you speak of subjects so close to the heart."
He shrugged, though the gesture felt like a clear betrayal of Nara. "I did want my own, once, but I regret nothing. How would I have found my Mia if I hadn't? My Fakhir and Tayyeb?"
The silence grew uncomfortable, and Al-Ashmar was sure he'd made a mistake by discussing his children. But how could he not? They were his loves. His life.
"You are the noble one," Rabiah said, and left him standing near the railing.
Al-Ashmar, hugging Mia against his hip, stood before the palace, unsure of himself with the palace so near.
The eighth day had come--the last day Al-Ashmar would be allowed into the palace. Djazir had mastered the tonic well enough, and he'd grown increasingly insistent that no one, least of all the Empress, needed to take such a distasteful brew any longer.
Al-Ashmar could hardly argue. The snake-like trails in Bela's eyes were gone, and her feces had returned to a proper level of density.
"Let's go," Mia said.
"All right, pet, we'll go."
They entered the palace. The guards were a bit disturbed by the unexpected addition of Mia, but Al-Ashmar explained to them calmly that Rabiah had permitted it. He made it to the Empress's garden, where he relieved his aching arms of Mia's weight.
Djazir marched forward. "What is this?"
"Eminence, my sincere apologies. With my absence, my business is in a shambles. My other children are old enough to run my errands, but I had no one to watch Mia. She will sit quietly, here, and bother no one."
"She had best not, physic." Djazir frowned and stared at Mia. "Don't touch a thing, child. Do you hear me?"
Mia hugged Al-Ashmar's waist and nodded.
Al-Ashmar calmed Mia down enough that he could leave her on a bench near the rear of the garden, mostly out of sight of the Empress's three peaked doorways. He made his way inside the room, where the Empress sat waiting on her throne. The four guards stood at the corners of the room, two more behind the throne, but Rabiah was not to be found. Where was she?
The Empress stared out through the gauzy curtains hanging over the doorways. She studied the garden, perhaps watching Mia play. Then her eyes took in Al-Ashmar.
And a hint of a smile came to her lips.
Al-Ashmar couldn't help but return the smile, but he hid it as quickly as it had come.
Bela strutted around from the back of the throne and moved to the bowl of cream placed there by Djazir.
Al-Ashmar nodded. From inside his vest he retrieved one of the eight phials he'd brought for their final day, but Djazir held up his hand to forestall him.
"I've administered my own tonic," Djazir said. "All that's left is for you to examine Bela."
Al-Ashmar began to worry. He needed to speak to Rabiah this one last time for he would never have the chance again, but with the tonic already administered there was only so far he could extend the examination before Djazir caught on. He did what he could: He kneeled and studied Bela's golden eyes closely even though they were obviously clear of the worm; he checked her muscle tone and reflexes; he examined her teeth.
"Enough," Djazir said, stepping to Al-Ashmar's side. "We both know Bela is fine. The Empress thanks you for your time."
Just then the Empress began to cough, a wracking, hoarse affair, and it nearly shook her from the throne. The guards moved to hold her, but Djazir waved them away as he rushed to her side. Al-Ashmar waited, hoping that Rabiah would step from the rear of the room.
"That will be all, ak Kulhadn."
Al-Ashmar bowed and retreated to the sounds of the Empress's horrible coughing. How painful it sounded. Painful, but also a touch forced to Al-Ashmar's ear.
He reached the garden, but could not find Mia.
"Mia," he called softly, hoping Djazir wouldn't hear.
She wasn't in the garden, so he moved up the stairs leading to the rooftop patio. He allowed himself to smile. Rabiah was crouched next to Mia, and her gaze followed Mia's outstretched finger through the balustrades of the marble railing to the city beyond.
"Is that so?" Rabiah asked.
Mia nodded. "And then Peppa brought it to our house. It was big as me--at least, big as I was then, which is still pretty big."
Mia noticed Al-Ashmar approach. "I told you she was pretty," Mia said.
Al-Ashmar smiled as his face flushed. He wished he could say the same thing to her, but Nara's memory stayed his tongue.
"You could help others," Al-Ashmar said as he tussled Mia's dark hair, "and the Empress will be waiting for you on the other side."
"She'll need me."
"She'll have your predecessor, Rabiah. She'll have the others." He motioned down toward the Empress's coughing, which was starting to subside. "She'll be whole once she reaches the far shore."
Her eyes were pleading, as if she wanted a reason to come with him. "This is blasphemy."
"Not where we're from," Mia said, as if she, too, were from the south.
Rabiah looked down at Mia, and a sad smile came to her lips. "That's just it, child. It is, even where your peppa's from." When she again met Al-Ashmar's eyes, her expression was resolute. "Please, go."
Al-Ashmar hesitated. Words always seemed to flee in the important moments of his life, and this time he knew the reason why. No matter how foolish he considered Rabiah's choice to be, he would never force his beliefs on another. She would have to embrace the Empress's wish before she could be saved.
"You would be loved," he said to Rabiah, and then he picked up Mia and left the palace.
When they were back in the streets, Mia said, "Is she coming to live with us?"
"No, pet, she's not."
Al-Ashmar woke upon hearing the great bell on top of the Hall of Ancients ring. A gentle rain pattered against the roof. The bell rang again and again. Al-Ashmar knew, well before it had reached the fourteenth peal, that the Empress had died.
When it was over, he sat there in the silence, feeling as if one of his own family had been lost. No, not one. Two. The Empress, even in her state, had smiled upon him in more ways than one--how could he not consider her family? And Rabiah. She'd been so close to walking away from her pointless fate.
A soft knock came at the door.
He opened it in a rush and found Rabiah standing outside, drenched.
"I don't want to die," she said.
Al-Ashmar stepped aside and ushered her into his house. He motioned her to his workroom, where the hearth still had enough embers to stoke some warmth from them. He got a blanket for Rabiah and wrapped it around her shoulders.
Fakhir walked into the room, hair disheveled with a blanket around his shoulders. "Everything all right, Peppa?"
"Fine, Fakhir. Go to bed."
Fakhir retired, leaving Al-Ashmar alone with this beauty and the sounds of the pattering rain. He prepared some lime tea for her, but by the time he handed it to her, she looked confused, as if coming to him might have been a terrible mistake.
"There is no shame in living a longer life, Rabiah. There's so much good you can do. For these children." He paused. "For me."
She looked at him then. Her eyes, no longer rimmed with kohl, looked just as beautiful in the ruddy light of the hearth. "For you?"
A harsh knock came at the front door.
Al-Ashmar's heart beat faster in his chest. "Were you followed?"
Rabiah glanced around, as if specters would take form from the shadows around them. "I--I took precautions."
Djazir's voice bellowed from the other side of the door. "Open, ak Kulhadn, or we'll break the door in."
Al-Ashmar scrambled for a proper hiding place, but there would be none. He couldn't even spirit her out the rear door. There was no telling what Djazir would do if they were caught running.
"It will be all right," Al-Ashmar said as he stood and moved to the door. "Stay by my side."
Four of his children stood in the doorway of their bedroom. "Fakhir, get them to bed, now. Close your door."
Before he could reach the front door, it crashed open. Al-Ashmar shivered. Three guards stormed into the room. Two more stood outside with Djazir. After the guards had positioned themselves about the room, Djazir strode in as if it were his own home. He looked Al-Ashmar up and down, then Rabiah, who stood nearby.
She stayed planted, gaze darting between Al-Ashmar and Djazir.
"Djazir, please. We can discuss this."
Djazir motioned to the nearest guard. Al-Ashmar barely registered the fist from the corner of his eye, and then everything was pain and disorientation. He fell, his shoulder and neck striking the low eating table in the center of the room. A piercing ache stormed up his neck to the base of his skull.
Before he could make sense of what had happened, the guard closest to Rabiah grabbed the back of her neck and man-handled her toward the exit.
"Dear physic, you have made this more than necessary." He knelt next to Al-Ashmar, daring him to rise. "Now, I will assume, for the sake of your children, that Rabiah has come to you for a bit of advice, that she has come to spill her fears of the time to come. It is natural, after all; you of all people should know this. I'll also assume that you kindly told her that everything will be fine, that her sacred voyage will be painless, and that she should return to the palace, as any good citizen would."
Al-Ashmar opened his mouth to speak, but Djazir talked over him.
"But if I find differently, or if I see you again before I guide the Empress to the opposite shore, I'll have your head." Djazir stood. "Do we understand one another?"
The door to the children's room was cracked open. Mia's whimpering filtered into the room. He had no choice. He had to protect them, and though it burned his gut to do so, he nodded to Djazir.
Djazir smiled, though his eyes still pierced. "I see we have an understanding. It would be a pity for seven orphans to become orphaned all over again."
And with that he left. The door stood open, and Al-Ashmar could only watch as Rabiah was forced to accompany them up the street, toward the palace.
The sun had not yet risen. It was hours since Rabiah had been taken away, but still Al-Ashmar could think of nothing to do. He was powerless to stop Djazir.
"Peppa?" It was Mia, standing in the doorway to his workroom.
"Go to bed," Al-Ashmar said.
"Nobody can sleep, and it's almost morning."
Several of the other children were preparing breakfast in the main room behind Mia.
Mia sat on the stool nearby and picked up the Empress's book. "Is she coming back?"
Al-Ashmar wanted to cry. "No, Mia. She's not."
Just then a cat entered through the rear door of the workroom and rubbed against Mia's leg. "Bela!" Mia said.
Indeed, the cat looked just like the Empress's. Al-Ashmar picked the animal up and examined her eyes, removing any doubt. This was certainly Bela, but how was it possible? The cat should have died with the Empress.
Bela bit the meat of Al-Ashmar's thumb, and he dropped her in surprise. Bela walked from the room as if she'd never intended to be here in the first place.
Al-Ashmar followed her out the rear door. Bela had already slunk beneath the gate of their small yard and out to the alley behind. Al-Ashmar followed and called back to Mia, who was trying to trail him. "Go back, Mia. I'll return when I can."
Al-Ashmar trailed Bela through the pale light of pre-dawn. She wound her way through the streets, and it gradually became clear she was leading him toward the palace. But she avoided the main western road. She traveled instead to the rear of the tall hill that housed it. She climbed the rocks, often leaving her human companion behind, but she would stop when Al-Ashmar fell too far back and then continue before he could catch up to her.
The eastern face of the hill held a shallow ravine with plants dotting a trail--most likely from the waste it carried from the palace to the river. Bela found a crook in the hillside, whereupon she stopped. When Al-Ashmar finally caught up, she circled his legs and meowed.
Al-Ashmar parted the wall of vines clinging to the nearby boulder. A low, dark tunnel entrance stood there. Al-Ashmar rushed through, realizing that Bela--or more likely the soul of the Empress--was leading him up to the palace. In utter darkness, he climbed the spiral stairs as quickly as his burning lungs would allow. Occasionally the stairwell would end, forcing him to take a short passage to find another that led him upward once more, but by and large it was strictly a grueling uphill climb.
His legs threatened to give out, forcing him to stop, but dawn would arrive soon, and Al-Ashmar feared that would be when the Empress's retinue would be killed.
Finally, dim light came from above, and the peal of a bell filtered down to him. Dawn had arrived. Bela meowed somewhere ahead. He felt sure he'd climbed treble the height of the palace, but still he pushed harder. The light intensified, and he came to a wall with a grate embedded into it. Though the brightness hurt his eyes, he surveyed what he realized was the Empress's garden.
Visible through the three peaked doorways, Djazir paced along the Empress's throne room. Six of the Empress's personal guard stood nearby, each wearing ornate leather armor with a sword and dagger hanging from a silver belt. Djazir wore a white silk robe embroidered with crimson thread, and a ceremonial dagger hung from a golden belt at his waist. The Empress was wrapped in folds of white cloth, her face still exposed. Five bolts of white cloth waited on the marble floor to her left.
To her right, on another bolt of cloth, was Rabiah, unconscious or dead.
Please, Rabiah, be alive.
Djazir continued to pace and wring his hands. A young man, wearing clothes similar to but not so grand as Djazir's, entered the garden and reported to Djazir.
As the two of them conversed, too low to be heard, Bela strolled out from the grate. Al-Ashmar tried to prevent it, but Bela sped up just before his fingers could reach her. She walked up to Djazir as if she were asking for a bit of cream.
"By the spirits, thank you," Djazir said loudly as he picked Bela up. "Now please," he said. "Prepare yourselves." Then he turned to the young man. "Prepare the procession immediately. You will find everything ready by the time you return."
The young man bowed and walked back through the garden. Al-Ashmar heard a heavy wooden door close. Moments later, the palace's bell pealed once more.
Al-Ashmar, heart quickening, searched the landscape of the grate, looking for any sign of a catch. He found something hard and irregular about halfway down on the left side, but had no idea how to release it.
As the Empress's guards positioned themselves on their white cloths, Djazir ladled a thick white liquid from a ceramic bowl using an ornate spoon. He held the spoon to Bela's lips and waited as she lapped at it. Then he set Bela down on a silk pillow on the Empress's throne and petted her until her movements slowed.
Bela rested her head on her crossed paws and stared directly at Al-Ashmar. Her eyes blinked, twice, before slowly closing for the last time. Her lungs ceased to draw breath mere moments later.
The bell pealed again, long and slow.
Djazir moved to each of the guards in turn and administered a spoonful of the liquid. Their bodies were already lying down, but each fell slack less than three breaths after imbibing the poison.
Al-Ashmar worked frantically at the catch. Open, damn it! Open!
Djazir moved next to Rabiah's motionless form.
"Stop it, Djazir!"
Djazir turned. He moved toward the grate, squinting.
The catch released.
Al-Ashmar stepped out into the light, ready to charge for Djazir should he make a move toward Rabiah. Instead Djazir dropped the spoon and pulled his dagger free of its sheath.
"I was willing to let your children live, Al-Ashmar, but an affront such as this demands their deaths."
Al-Ashmar, heart beating wildly, patted his vest for anything he might use as a weapon and found only the leftover phials of Bela's tonic. He swallowed hard and pulled one of them from his vest pocket.
Djazir chuckled. "Are you going to heal me, physic?"
Al-Ashmar unstoppered the phial and waited for Djazir to come close, but Djazir lunged much faster than Al-Ashmar had anticipated. Al-Ashmar dodged, but still the steel bit deep into his shoulder. He flung the phial's contents at Djazir's face, aiming for the eyes. Enough of the acerbic liquid struck home, and Djazir screamed and fell backward.
Al-Ashmar fell on top of Djazir, driving his good shoulder into Djazir's gut. A long, deep, noisy exhalation was forced from Djazir's lungs, giving Al-Ashmar time to scramble on top of him. Holding the knife to one side, Al-Ashmar seized Djazir's neck and applied all the leverage he could as the older man writhed beneath him, sputtering and choking, eyes pinched tight. Finally, as the palace bell pealed over the city, Djazir's body lost all tension.
Al-Ashmar breathed heavily, wincing from the pain in his screaming shoulder. He cleaned Djazir as best he could and tugged him into position on the remaining bolt of white cloth. Then he rushed to Rabiah's side and tried to wake her. He thought surely she was dead, thought surely this had all been for naught, but no, she still had a faint heartbeat. She still drew breath, however slowly. He slapped her, but she would not wake.
The bell pealed. They would return soon.
Al-Ashmar took a bit of the tonic still left in the phial and spread it under and inside Rabiah's nostrils. She jerked and her eyes opened. She was slow in focusing, but eventually she seemed to recognize Al-Ashmar.
"Where am I?" she asked, rubbing the tonic from her nose.
"Not now. I will explain all later."
Al-Ashmar helped Rabiah through the grate, but before he could take the first of the steps down, she turned him around and wrapped her arms around him.
"Thank you for my life," she said.
He freed himself from her embrace and pulled her toward the stairs. "Thank me when you have your new one."
Al-Ashmar knew they would have to leave for foreign lands, but it couldn't be helped. He hadn't expected this change in fortune, but neither had he expected his wife to die or to raise seven children on his own. He would take what fate gave him and deal with it as best he could.
Yes, with Rabiah it would all be just a little bit easier.
Afterword by Bradley P. Beaulieu
I heard an analogy years ago: that you draw yourself toward a goal similar to the way a rubber band pulls a weight across a table. If the pull is too slack, you end up moving toward your goal too slowly (or not at all); too fast and the rubber band breaks. It's at those in-between times where the pull is not too strong and not too slack that you work at peak efficiency. I believe this is what happened to me with this story.
"In the Eyes of the Empress's Cat" was written during Uncle Orson's Literary Bootcamp in the summer of 2005. In Bootcamp, the campers are asked to write one story--in twenty-four hours. Well, that's not exactly true. You take one day to brainstorm and develop the story idea; the story idea is critiqued by the group the following day; and then you're expected to write the story in twenty-four hours.
The guidelines we were given were interesting and may give some insight into how easy it can be to generate story ideas. First, we were told to interview random people. We were allowed to say why we were interviewing them, but beyond that it was simply a conversation with a person I didn't know that would eventually (inevitably) reveal something insightful or enigmatic or thought-provoking--in other words: something I could use in my story. The thing to note here is that this was not only true of the person I ended up interviewing, but of anyone I might have interviewed.
The young woman I met was a college student, still trying to find her way in life but interested in medicine. She spoke of a family friend who had had a stroke. During her recovery this woman would try to say one word, but a completely different yet perfectly intelligible word would come out of her mouth, as if the wires to the one word had been rerouted to the other. Out of this conversation, as you may have guessed, came the Empress.
Another brainstorming technique was to visit a library or bookstore and simply browse. Just like a conversation with a stranger, this will eventually produce something that can complicate or enhance a story. I found a book on iridology, the discipline of assessing one's health through examination of the iris and white of the eye. I'll leave you to determine how this affected the story.
I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't complete the story in the allotted time frame. I took an extra day, but I'm still very proud of the result. That's not to say that I did this alone. I have all my fellow '05 Bootcampers to thank and, of course, Card himself. As I recall, Card was critical of my initial story idea, and rightly so. It was with his insights and all the excellent advice I received during Bootcamp that "Cat" was conceived, created, and refined. My heartfelt thanks to all those involved.
ORSON SCOTT CARDS INTERGALACTIC MEDICINE SHOW. Copyright 2008 by Hatrack River Enterprises, Inc.